How to Find Morel Mushrooms in Illinois
Jump to recipe: Sous Vide Chicken Breast with Morel Mushroom Sauce
Being a novice morel hunter myself, I sat down with Firefly Grill’s own Dean Samuel (Kristie’s dad) and chatted with him about how to find morel mushrooms here in the midwest. Gray, white, and yellow morels grow in forest areas all throughout the midwest near ash and elm trees. They have a mild earthy nutty flavor and a long shelf life. However, they’re growing season is only a few short weeks between March and the beginning of May. Best way to serve them up? Try them battered and lightly fried or (like in the recipe below) in a creamy mushroom sauce.
If you don’t live here in Illinois, don’t fret. They’re also found as far north as the middle of Minnesota, northern Michigan, and even in the southern parts of Maine! They trail all the way down to north Texas too. Then they skim the northern borders of the southern states over to South Carolina. Completing their loop as they shimmy up to the midwest state of Ohio. Finally for a big finish, they jump to the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains of Oregon. I’m sure a missed a state or two, but you get the idea. They have a long reach, a short growing season, and they’re terribly difficult to find. But tons of fun to look for! (Note: Plan B at the bottom of the post)
How To Find Morel Mushrooms… Know Your Trees
Specifically, know how to identify ash and elm trees. This is particularly challenging when there are no leaves on them! That leaves you two options: 1) scout out your trees the year before (bwahahaha! Like that’s going to happen!) or 2) Google “What does ash and elm tree bark look like.” I opted for the latter. After looking at 14,570 pictures of elm bark, I realized couldn’t tell the difference between the barks of an elm, oak, and maple trees, but then I discovered that the bark of an ash tree is distinctive! Hallelujah!
If the ash or elm is dead, your chances of finding morels increase dramatically. Morels don’t confine themselves to the base of the tree. They can be anywhere in it’s shadow, up to 30 or 40 feet from the tree. Dean suggests: “once you find a morel, don’t pick it right away. Use it as a center point and start to make a circular sweep out from that point. If there’s one, there’s bound to be more! Also, they grow like wildfire for several years after a forest fire!”
Look for them at the right time
Morels start popping up when the soil first starts to warm, usually from the end of March to mid May as you move north. In our neck of the woods here in central Illinois, we usually start seeing them in mid to late April. They like well drained soil on southern facing slopes.
One of the nicest things about morel hunting is seeing the first flowers of spring! The other thing I like about this time of year, it’s not buggy and the chances of walking head first into a ginormous spiderweb (complete with a HUGE spider) is next to ZERO!!! You still want to spray yourself down with bug spray because there are plenty of ticks that would love to find you. Wear long sleeves, jeans, a hat (ticks fall down from the trees) and good walking boots or shoes.
Tread softly and carry a big stick
Finding morels is the culinary equivalent of the proverbial “needle in a haystack.” As you can plainly tell from the picture of above. They are the Navy Seals in full blown stealth mode of the mushroom kingdom.
Before I chatted Dean up about this elusive morsels, I asked another successful morel hunter and very good friend of ours, Tom Mette, for his insight on how to find morel mushrooms. Tom mentioned having excellent luck in the Shawnee National Park in southern Illinois and also suggested Plan B. And what is Plan B??? Well, if you follow all these tips and still come up empty handed, make sure you take with you these 3 things when you go on your morel adventure. 1) Your sweetheart, 2) a bottle of wine and 3) a comfy blanket. When you get tired of the search, spread out the blanket and enjoy the early days of spring in the fresh forest air and warm sun! I couldn’t agree more!
Sous Vide Chicken Breast with Morel Mushroom Sauce
And if you adventure proves unfruitful, head over to the Firefly Grill for the best Fried Morels ever! Or if you want to play in your own kitchen, slip over to your local grocer (or farmer’s market) and see if they have any morels in the produce isle. Then try this rich and creamy recipe for morel mushrooms sauce over a delicate sous vide chicken breast. This is comfort food on the lighter side. Even though the sauce is completely decedent, the chicken is light, tender and juicy. Serve it with a side of rice pilaf with fresh herbs and toasted pecans and a simple spinach salad made with a light Italian vinaigrette, red onions, and mandarin oranges. Soooooo good!
Sous Vide Chicken Breast with Morel Mushroom Sauce
Once you find a handful of morels in the woods or in the wilderness of your local grocer, try your hand at this morel mushrooms sauce. If morels are out of season, no worries. This is a great recipe for baby bella mushrooms or white button mushrooms. YUM! | www.lakesidetable.com
For the Chicken:
- 3 chicken breasts, thawed or frozen
For the Morel Mushroom Sauce
- 6-8 medium morels (or 8 ounces button mushrooms), chopped
- 1 cup dried shitake mushrooms, broken up
- 2 cups boiling hot water
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 large shallot, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 4 tablespoons butter, divided
- 1/4 cup dry sherry
- 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
- Place the thawed or frozen chicken breasts in vacuum bags or ziplock bags. Place them in the sous vide at 146F for 2-4 hours. About 20 minutes before your ready to eat, start on the mushroom sauce.*
- Pour the 2 cups of boiling water over the dried shitake mushrooms to rehydrate them. Save the liquid to use later in this recipe.
- While the shitakes are hydrating, melt 2 tablespoons butter with the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Then add the chopped morels.
- When the shitakes are soft, add them to the morels. Reserve the liquid.
- Stir the mushrooms, coating them in the oil and butter for 3-4 minutes. After the morels soften and start to brown, turn down the heat to medium low and add the shallots. Stir for 2 minutes, then after they soften, add the garlic, salt and pepper.
- Push the mushroom mixture to the far edges of the skillet and melt 2 tablespoons of butter in the center of the pan.
- After the butter has melted, add 1 tablespoon flour and whisk it until it bubbles and starts to turn an off white or slightly brown. Then whisk in the reserved mushroom water and sherry. Whisking the whole time until the sauce has thickened and there are no clumps.
- Stir in the cream and nutmeg. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt or pepper if needed.
- Remove chicken breasts from sous vide and slice. Spoon sauce over chicken, serve, and enjoy!
*The mushroom sauce can also be made 2-3 days ahead and refrigerated in an air tight container. Reheat it in the microwave or stove top. It also freezes well for up to 2-3 months.
This is a great dish to serve with rice pilaf with fresh herbs and toasted pecans and a spinach salad made with a light vinaigrette, mandarin oranges, and red onions.
This mushroom sauce is also delicious over pork chops, pork loin, steak, pasta, rice, quinoa, over a poached egg, or mixed in with a tuna casserole. The possibilities are endless!
If you’d like to find out how to find morel mushrooms yourself check out my post https://lakesidetable.com/how-to-find-morel-mushrooms/
As an end note, if you have any friends who would also like to know how to find morel mushrooms please feel free to share this post!